The AFC and NFC Championship Games are finally set. And after a season of unpredictable outcomes and three opening-round upsets in the playoffs, the four teams that opened the season as the Super Bowl favorites are all still alive and pitted against each other.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will face off in the 15th chapter of the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady legacy. With two defenses coming in with question marks, offensive players will need to step up to earn either team a Super Bowl berth.
On the NFC side, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will play for the third time this season in a game that is highlighted by two of the best defenses in the NFL. While both teams feature great young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, other offensive players will be need to carry the load for the two teams.
Before the two games kick off on Sunday afternoon, here are the key players for every team that will need to have a great performance to help their squad get to the Super Bowl.
AFC Championship Game: LeGarrette Blount and Demaryius Thomas
The Patriots and Broncos have great quarterbacks. That much we know.
But when it comes to the other players who will be taking the field on Sunday afternoon, two of the biggest playmakers will need to step up in order to punch their respective team's ticket to the Super Bowl.
For the Patriots, LeGarrette Blount has been the biggest X-factor in their last three games. The fourth-year back has put together an average of 143.7 rushing yards and a total of eight touchdowns over that span and had 24 rushing attempts in each of his last two games.
If you can get the guy through the line of scrimmage and then break a tackle or make a guy miss, that's where you get the long ones. Good backs do that. They make some of those yards on their own -- step to the line, the backs and the tight ends get them started, get them some space and let them do their thing.
The Broncos have a running game with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, but their offense still runs through Manning. And when you're Manning's favorite target like Demaryius Thomas is, you better have success to get a win.
Despite only playing in four postseason games thus far in his NFL career, Thomas has recorded a touchdown in each game for the Broncos, according to NFL AM:
In the regular season, Thomas finished 2013 with the most receptions (92), receiving yards (1,430), touchdowns (14), yards after the catch (633) and catches of 20-plus yards (19). For the Broncos to earn a Super Bowl berth, they will need their most dynamic receiver to step up yet again.
When talking about playmakers in the NFC Championship Game, it would be just as easy to look at the quarterbacks as the AFC Championship Game. But looking at the weapons around them gives a clear picture of how this game will take shape.
Seattle's offense runs—literally and figuratively—through Marshawn Lynch. The man famously known as Beast Mode has been eating his Skittles prior to each game against San Francisco and has seven touchdowns against them in his last five meetings.
Just this season, Lynch went off for over 70 yards in each of the two games and totaled four touchdowns against the 49ers this year.
And with another huge showdown against the 49ers coming up on Sunday, Dan Hanzus of NFL.com points out what makes Beast Mode so great and why he's more important than ever for the Seahawks' offense:
Lynch is just a throwback—a punishing bulldozer who goes through opponents rather than around them. Lynch was in vintage Beast Mode against the New Orleans Saints in Saturday's divisional playoffs, wearing down an otherwise game Rob Ryan defense in a 23-15 win at CenturyLink Field.
Lynch finished with 28 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Of those yards, 108 came between the tackles, according to ESPN. He did it on a day when the weather was brutal, the passing game was non-existent and Percy Harvin's return was temporary. Pete Carroll needed Lynch more than ever, and his star delivered.
The 49ers player who needs to step up the most is Michael Crabtree. While he's played well since his comeback, the fifth-year receiver needs to find holes in the Seahawks' No. 1 passing defense to help Kaepernick out.
Over the last two seasons, Kaepernick has not had success against the Seahawks, as ESPN Stats and Info points out:
While Crabtree's success might be measured by the amount of receptions he comes away with, yards he records or touchdowns that he scores, just his presence on the field is enough to make the 49ers a better team.
Since his return in Week 13, the 49ers have won seven straight games during an eight-game winning streak and improved offensively. As ESPN Stats and Info once again notes, though Kaep hasn't been great against Seattle, the second-year quarterback has been much better in the playoffs with Crabtree on the field:
With both teams boasting great defenses and offenses that are able to exploit even the best defenses in the NFC—as they did in the divisional round against the Panthers and Saints—Lynch and Crabtree will be the difference-makers for these two NFC West rivals.
If either player can step up on the big stage again, they will help their team reach the NFL's biggest stage on Super Bowl Sunday.